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This Year in Davos, Opponents Aren't Even Bothering to Protest

The 45th World Economic Forum has opened in the Swiss mountain resort, with thousands of world and business leaders — and not a single protester.

by Samuel Oakford
Jan 20 2016, 8:25pm

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, speaks with Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in Davos on January 20, 2016. Photo by Jean-Christophe Bott / EPA

As thousand of members of the global elite descend this week on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, one group is notably absent: protesters.

Among other signs of the desertion by  protesters: For the first time in a decade, the organizations behind the mocking anti-corporate accolades known as the Public Eye Awards will not hold voting to determine "the most irresponsible company of the year." The World Economic Forum, they say, does not deserve the attention anymore.

First doled out in 2005, the awards were the outcome of a counter-conference, "the Public Eye on Davos," that was held to coincide with the World Economic Forum or WEF and offer what its organizers considered a needed check on the CEOs and bankers gathered inside. In its inaugural year, Wal-Mart was cited for its labor practices, Dow Chemical for human rights violations, Royal Dutch Shell for environmental destruction, and accounting giant KPMG International for abetting tax avoidance. Later, Disney, Citi, Goldman Sachs, the drug firm Novartis and the mining company Glencore — all participants and sponsors of the forum — were assailed for their corporate track records.

But after ten years, organizers changed their tune. In 2015 a final "honor" – a lifetime award – was bestowed on Chevron, and then activists picked up shop.

"We ended the Public Eye on Davos last year because we did say and we still believe that in a way it [the WEF] doesn't warrant that level of counter-activity because it's losing legitimacy," said Daniel Mittler, political director for Greenpeace International, one of the NGOs behind the awards. "And the one percent are clearly getting richer and richer."

This week, he noted, Oxfam International released a report which found that just 62 individuals currently hold as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity, as measured by net worth. And while many of those people do gather every January in Davos, and many activists still see the WEF meeting, with its fundamental faith in market-based solutions, as a problem — some are also saying that the annual Davos event serves as much as a venue for networking as anything else, and has no regulatory power. That's a stark contrast to other entities that have been targeted by anti-corporate and anti-globalization protests in the past, such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

"We made a conscious choice that we wouldn't edify the WEF," said Mittler.

Indeed, on Wednesday, the Forum's first full day, there appeared to be no demonstrations anywhere near the town, and Swiss police confirmed they'd heard of no plans to hold any. "There are no protests, sorry," said a spokesperson reached by telephone.

Now in its 45th year, the forum has grown exponentially since its start as a setting for European business managers to learn skills from their American counterparts. It has long included politicians and high-profile humanitarians, and has on occasion served as neutral venue for talks on sensitive topics, often between sworn enemies. Greek and Turkish leaders, as well as Israelis and Arabs, have all shaken hands after talks in Davos.    

 By all accounts, the forum's organizers have grown increasingly self-aware, and go out of their way to highlight panels on topics like inequality, climate change and, this year, the ongoing migrant crisis. The 2016 meeting is based around what German founder Klaus Schwab has dubbed — and described in a book distributed to all attendees — as the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," a technological and labor shift that Schwab says could very well lead to greater inequality.

But whatever else it chooses to draw attention to, the forum, activists point out, is still funded by huge multinational corporations, many of which continue to be cited for their labor and environmental practices, or for not paying what activists say is their fair share of taxes.

This year, more than 120 companies, including Facebook, Chevron, Volkswagen and the asset manager Blackrock, have paid 600,000 Swiss Francs each — about the same in US dollars — to be "Strategic Partners" of the conference. A recent Oxfam survey of 200 companies, including all the current partners of the WEF, found that 9 out of 10 had a presence in at least one tax haven.

Oliver Classen, media director at the Berne Declaration, a Swiss-based group that also previously helped organize the Public Eye awards, said that while the panels may expose some attendees to social concerns, they also serve as cover for the real point of the event — schmoozing among the elite.

"You might say it's like an onion — there are visible parts of the onion, the panels that you and I see, what the broader public is calmed down with, where they say 'we are accessible, we have no hidden agenda."

"But the closer you get to the core the closer you get to the 10-15 minute slots that the real important people have to make deals and work their agenda, that's the business model of Klaus Schwab," he added.

Pressed about critiques of the WEF raised by Public Eye and others -— for example that it's attended almost exclusively by men (this year only 17.8 percent of guests are women) — forum representatives were quick to cite those NGOs that do take part in panels.

"I know Olly, and I have a lot of respect for what Public Eye did," said Adrian Monck, head of public engagement at the WEF, referring to Classen. "But I think we learnt the lessons of including as many divergent voices as possible — if you look at the Oxfams, if you look at the Greenpeaces, if you look at the shapers, not just the civil society leaders, people imprisoned for standing up for human rights, you have a very powerful set of voices to hold people to account."

In fact, Greenpeace did not send a representative to this year's event, though Mittler said that was due to transitions among the senior leadership. As for Oxfam, the group's executive director Winnie Byanyima said it was still worth showing up at the WEF. Even if slowly by most any standard, she said, the business community at Davos was at least now willing to engage on inequality.

"When we started talking about rising income inequality, there was denial," she said. "It was a subject that wasn't being discussed here four or five years ago. But over this short time it has become a mainstream policy issue for politicians and business people to look at."

Given that income inequality has consistently risen among many Western countries since the 1980s, this sudden recognition may seem little to applaud. Still, Byanyima said she can shape the yawning gulf between the 1 percent and the world's poorest in terms the business community understands.

"Serious business people understand that if you do not tackle economic inequality you can spur social unrest, that actually this kind of economic inequality is undermining growth, which is what they want," she said. "Call it capitalism, call it whatever, but it's just a rigged system, a rigged economy."

Speaking amid a sea of delegates and businesspeople in the Forum's main Congresss Hall, Byanyima conceded that some merely come to Davos to pay lip service and appear next to NGO officials. "But we are seeing some movement, movement from denial to recognition of the issue to statements of intent," she added. "Davos is not the place where agreements are made, Davos is the place for influencing and networking."

Classen refrained from directly criticizing non-profits that take part in Davos, and said the Berne Declaration had moved on to working around relevant corporate frameworks, like the 2011 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were endorsed by the UN's Human Rights Council. Those are concrete principles, he said, unlike the talks offered at Davos, where it's really about high-level networking.   

"At the end of the day, we as opponents served the Davos agenda," he said, "because they needed and depended to some extent on opposition to legitimize their objectives."

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